Monday, November 1, 2010

Al Qaeda Threat Heightens Need to Resolve Western Sahara

It’s hard to see the United States’ faltering efforts to resolve the seemingly intractable Israeli-Palestinian dispute as a model for conflict resolution. Yet, parallels between the Middle East conflict and the Arab world’s other seemingly intractable dispute in the Western Sahara that has soured relations between Morocco and Algeria, suggest otherwise.

Resolution of the 35-year old conflict, one of Africa’s longest festering disputes, has become more urgent with the realization that lack of cooperation between North African and Sahel nations undermines efforts to stem the rise of Al Qaida’s affiliate in the region, Al Qaida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). The need to align North African nations was driven home by AQIM’s brazen kidnapping in Niger in September of seven foreigners, including five Frenchmen, that threatens France's major source of uranium. Algeria, which backs Polisario, the Sahrawi liberation movement in its dispute with Morocco, last month refused to participate in a meeting in the Malian capital Bamako organized by the G8 Counter-Terrorism Action Group to discuss AQIM because of the presence of Moroccan representatives.

While there are obvious differences between the Israeli-Palestinian dispute and the conflict in the Western Sahara, similarities between the two suggest that the most recent Middle East peacemaking experience may be applicable.

At the heart of both conflicts is annexation of territory that has displaced population groups and subjected them to occupation. The parties to both conflicts pay lip service to international peace efforts but in practice act to subvert them. Both conflicts position a Western-backed ally against a liberation movement supported by influential regional powers. The United States and Europe, despite their support for the occupying power in both conflicts, pay lip service to the rights of the dispossessed.

It is these similarities that positions Middle East peacemaking as a model for preventing the festering conflict in the Sahara from playing into AQIM’s hands. The Obama’s administration message to Israel that security can only be achieved by accommodating Palestinian national aspirations is applicable to Morocco too: regional security demands a two-state solution. Morocco and the Sahrawis need to agree on a formula that balances Moroccan claims of sovereignty with Sahrawi demands for independence.

The roadmap adopted by the Middle East Quartet, which groups the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia is equally applicable to the Western Sahara based on UN Security Council resolutions that call for a negotiated solution and recognition of the Sahrawi right to self-determination. A Saharan roadmap would allow the international community to empower former US diplomat and current UN envoy Chris Ross with the same mandate given to US Middle East peace negotiator George Mitchell: impose a one-year deadline within which the parties seriously negotiate a resolution of their seemingly intractable differences.

To provide the roadmap, the international community would have to come together as it did in the case of the Middle East rather than ignoring the dispute in the Sahara or adopting contradictory policies.In the past the United States was the only power seeking to bring the parties to the negotiating table with little support from its fellow council members. That is no longer a tenable situation with AQIM’s increasingly brazen operations and threats by Polisario, the Saharan liberation movement, to revive its armed struggle.

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